Moments earlier, a jury had found 41-year-old Jarrod Ramos criminally responsible for the mass shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper that killed five people on June 28, 2018. He had already pleaded guilty to the attack, but his lawyers had argued he wasn’t mentally stable enough to understand his actions — and should be sentenced to a hospital instead of prison.
It was Leitess’s job to convince the jury otherwise. And she’d won.
For three years, through financial hardships at the newspaper and a pandemic that shut down the courts, the Capital Gazette mass shooting case had loomed over her office and reshaped her Annapolis community. The attack — amid her campaign for state’s attorney — had come to define her first elected term in office and crystallized her reputation as both a mercilessly tough litigator and a deep-feeling advocate for victims.
During the trial, the case had also consumed Leitess’s life.
Day after day, she was in the office preparing before her morning alarm clock could even sound. She had dreams about the case. She had held the evidence in her hands — the shooter’s gun, his wallet, the barricades he used to block the exits — because she wanted to understand the weight of what she was carrying.
She wanted the jury to understand, too.
Throughout the trial, the prosecutor had been unrelenting. She painted the shooter as a manipulative man who wanted to hurt as many people as possible that day.
She skewered the defense’s expert doctors over a string of objections, then she did it again during closing arguments.
“I’m sorry if I’m being brutal,” she told the jury, “but this is too important to let go.”
Then after weeks of testimony and just an hour of deliberation, the jury sided with her and against Ramos, setting him up for a term of life in prison, which a judge will formally decide at his sentencing scheduled for Tuesday.
In the hallway, Leitess took in the faces of the colleagues and loved ones of those killed. She embraced the relatives of Wendi Winters, the community reporter who died trying to stop the shooter with a trash can. She hugged the child of editor Rob Hiaasen, a beloved mentor to young journalists. She locked eyes with a survivor, longtime photojournalist Paul Gillespie, and squeezed his hand.
“It didn’t feel complete until now,” Winters’s sister told Leitess.
“You’re making me cry,” Leitess said, wiping her eyes.
Then she pulled herself together and cleared her throat, speaking again like the hardened prosecutor she had been at trial. She praised her team’s expert witnesses. She explained her strategy: to make the proceedings as unpleasant as possible for Ramos by refusing to call witnesses she suspected he wanted to see. She acknowledged the bravery of the survivors and first responders who relived their darkest hours on the witness stand.
The group broke into applause, a gesture of gratitude Leitess had never experienced.
“I don’t play,” Leitess whispered into the ear of Winters’s youngest daughter. “And that’s why I do well with juries. Because I’m real and not fake.”
'She had arrived'
On the afternoon of June 28, 2018, Leitess was walking outside her doctor’s office half a mile from the Capital Gazette newsroom when she saw the police cars rush by.
Next came the alert on her phone about an active shooter in the area. She called one of her three sons and told him to be safe. She took the long way home.
It wasn’t until later that she learned, along with the rest of the country, how violent the day had been and the name of the man responsible.
Jarrod Ramos was known. He had harbored a vendetta for years against the Capital Gazette, which published a story about his harassment of a high school classmate and then refused his request to retract it. Ramos tried to get retribution through the courts, and became obsessed with taunting the paper, the state’s attorney’s office and Leitess herself, according to court testimony.
When his lawsuits failed, investigators said, he turned to violence.
Reporters Leitess knew were targeted, and five employees were killed: Winters, Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith.
“Just shocked,” Leitess remembers feeling. “You don’t even know what to say or do.”
At the time, she was in the final months of her second bid for state’s attorney, which meant that if she won she would inherit the case — and the weight of that responsibility.
Leitess had already been state’s attorney once — from 2013 to 2015 — after her longtime boss retired and a panel of judges appointed her to run the office. She had campaigned to keep the role in 2014 but lost to her Republican challenger.
So Leitess left and took a job leading the special victims unit in the Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office.
“It’s tough to lose an election, but that wasn’t the bad part about it,” she said. “The bad part was leaving the place I love.”
She had spent nearly her entire career in Anne Arundel County, where she and her husband, now a private attorney, were hired as prosecutors in 1990. She took the permanent position and made him take the contract slot.
“She came across as someone who is not afraid of going to court. She was not someone who would be intimidated by judges or defense counsel,” said William Roessler, the longtime deputy state’s attorney who interviewed her for the job. “We hired her, and turned out we were absolutely right.”
Within years, Leitess began prosecuting violent crimes, and in 1998 she got her first big break.
Her boss, Frank Weathersbee, was retrying the high-profile case of Scotland E. Williams for the murders of two Washington-area lawyers. Cynthia Ferris, one of the first female prosecutors in the county and his co-counsel during Williams’s first trial, had become a magistrate.
Ferris quietly recommended Leitess to replace her.
“She was a superstar at the state’s attorney’s office probably before she was really recognized,” Ferris said in an interview.
But after the Williams case, Ferris said, “she had arrived.”
“I used to say women had to be twice as good to be thought half as good,” Ferris said. “And as women, I thought we had to win twice the cases to be taken seriously.”
A few years later, Leitess started having children and decided to go part time.
But the move meant she had to go back to trying lower-level crimes in district court, a rule that Leitess said was created after a mother working part time trying sex crimes in circuit court couldn’t be immediately reached while at the doctor.
“It was frustrating,” Leitess said. “The notion that you have to go back to the district court because you want to be with your children more and raise your family.”
Even still, she said she found ways to grow. She often worked 30-hour weeks, rather than her scheduled 20, and mentored other young attorneys. She tried former D.C. mayor Marion Barry when he was accused of assaulting a woman at the Baltimore airport. She even found a way to try a murder case.
“I made the best of it,” she said.
After seven years, Leitess returned full time. She said she felt a need to prove herself again — to her colleagues, and to herself.
That feeling resurfaced in Baltimore, where she had to earn the respect of new judges and the 22 attorneys under her who were prosecuting “the most excruciating cases” involving sexual assault, domestic violence and the abuse of children.
When it came time to decide whether she’d run again in Anne Arundel, she felt she was finally her full self. For nearly three decades, she had honed her skills as a tough litigator and advocate for victims. Leitess had also figured out how to navigate both roles as a woman, and use those experiences to win.
“I had nothing to lose and everything to gain,” she said. “It gave me the kind of confidence and freedom to speak my mind.”
'This is what I do'
Leitess won back her old office on Nov. 6, 2018, becoming the county’s first elected female state’s attorney on the same day women seized power in record numbers nationwide.
Before she was even sworn into office, Leitess dove into the Capital Gazette case.
Mass shooters are rarely prosecuted, because they are usually killed by police or die by suicide. But Ramos had lived, methodically plotting his attack, according to court testimony, so that he could leave himself enough time to murder five people, send a tweet, call 911 and lie facedown on the ground before first responders arrived.
Ramos, according to investigators, had set a timer on his watch just before firing his first shot.
To prepare for his criminal trial, Leitess said she examined everything: bank records and rental car receipts, the laser beam he bought to help aim his gun, security footage of him blasting through the glass office door and hunting staffers hiding under desks.
She absorbed the firsthand accounts of the survivors, who recalled hearing Ramos reload his gun and their colleagues speaking their final words.
She read Ramos’s mental health assessment, in which he told the state’s doctor he had selected that day for the shooting because he thought public officials would be there for an editorial board meeting. He listed the people he was disappointed he hadn’t killed. One of them was Leitess.
But just before jury selection began in the fall of 2019, Ramos pleaded guilty — setting in motion the sanity trial that took place this summer.
Leitess had tried one such case before, and she had worked with defense attorneys to get people treatment if there was proof they were truly sick at the time of their crimes.
But she saw no evidence that Ramos deserved that kind of empathy.
So she and her legal team went back to work.
They learned Ramos paid his rent on time every month and that at the height of his vendetta against the newspaper, he was making the most money of his career in a security-clearance government job — proof, she said, that he was stable enough to control his actions. They obtained paperwork from Ramos’s apartment building citing his dirty kitchen, which she used to contradict the defense’s argument that germophobia was evidence of his mental illness.
When Leitess and her co-counsel inspected Ramos’s wallet, they found his lifetime membership card to the U.S. Chess Federation — purchased days before the killings, in what she said was preparation for a long incarceration. That alone, Leitess would argue, was enough to show he understood the consequences of his actions.
On the eve of trial, three years after the attack, Leitess told herself this case was like any other. The courtroom was where she felt most in command. Trials were her sweet spot. She had prepared all she could.
“This is what I do,” she said, again and again.
But this case was not like all the others. There were more victims, more survivors, more family members and more attention than she had ever experienced. This trial was personal for her entire community.
So she said she tried to present a case that exposed both the horror of what happened that day and the intricacy with which Ramos planned it. She had the FBI build a detailed model of the newsroom. She called the medical examiner to discuss the brutality of the victims’ gunshot wounds. She asked all six survivors to testify.
“I wanted that for the families . . .” Leitess said. “I wanted the truth to be known.”
Not yet done
It had been a month since Leitess had listened to the jury find Ramos responsible for his crimes, and now she was back in that same courtroom, once again prepared to fight.
Leitess had spent the weeks since the verdict trying to decompress. There were the parts of her life as a partner and mother that she had put on hold — like cooking meals with her husband, or helping her three sons with moves and medical school applications.
Leitess also checked in with the Capital Gazette community, who had invited her to their post-trial celebration, where they drank, hugged and briefly relaxed. The children of the victims gave her gifts. Strangers on the street thanked her, too.
But Leitess was not yet done.
From jail, Ramos had written a letter to the judge, asking for an expedited sentencing. It was scheduled for Sept. 28, but he didn’t want to wait, and he said he was willing to waive his rights to an appeal and accept the maximum sentence of life without parole if the judge agreed.
At the hearing in August to weigh his request, Leitess was irked. Ramos had gotten his day in court, she argued, and now it was critical for the victims and survivors to address him on their timetable, not his.
“I hate to say this so bluntly,” Leitess said, “but why are we moving the case up for the defendant’s convenience?”
Once again, Leitess won.
Emily Davies contributed to this report.